What Is It I’m Trying to Say?

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley from “A Defence of Poetry

Poetry may make us from time to time
a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings
which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
—T.S. Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows–the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

~Billy Collins, “The Effort” from Ballistics.

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Vase of Flowers, 1660 National Gallery of ARt
photo by Josh Scholten

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,
leaving those who look through to guess
about what is seen during the moment.
~Carl Sandburg

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a bit better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer anyone with my own words, whether poetic or not. Instead, I describe my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does somehow shine out through the murkiness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but by the grace of God I simply needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

Only then I describe it as best I can.

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Dialogue With the Invisible

All day I try to say nothing but thank you,
breathe the syllables in and out with every step I
take through the rooms of my house and outside into
a profusion of shaggy-headed dandelions in the garden
where the tulips’ black stamens shake in their crimson cups.

I am saying thank you, yes, to this burgeoning spring
and to the cold wind of its changes.
Gratitude comes easy after a hot shower,
when loosened muscles work,
when eyes and mind begin to clear
and even unruly hair combs into place.

Dialogue with the invisible can go on every minute,
and with surprising gaiety I am saying thank you as
I remember who I am, a woman learning to praise something
as small as dandelion petals floating
on the steaming surface of this bowl of vegetable soup,
my happy savoring tongue.
~Jeanne Lohmann “To Say Nothing But Thank You”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
~Mary Oliver “Praying”

As this long winter has finally given way to spring, I am grateful to pay attention to the small things around me, to breathe my silent thanks for this privilege of being witness to the soil of this life, this farm, this faith. More days than not, I savor it as someone who is hungry and thirsty for beauty and meaning.

In my thankfulness, I must pay attention to who I am: I still yearn to grow, to bloom and fruit, harvesting what I can to share with others.

It often feels like a dialogue with the invisible.

With deep gratitude to all who come here daily to read these words and enjoy my pictures and who let me know how it makes a difference in your day.

You and I may never meet in this life yet your generous comments always make a difference to me!

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Summoning Up Life’s Riches

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator there is no poverty

and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke
from Letters to a Young Poet

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring my life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life; I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed: she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant being put to work. I decided to live a life of nearly too much work and activity, missing much I could have slowed down to notice.

Some things haven’t changed, even sixty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is the rest of my life to be lived and nearly always something to say about it.


Night has come:
for one whole day again I’ve loved you so much,
stirring hills.
It’s beautiful to see.
But: to feel in the lining of closed eyelids
the sweetness of having seen …
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

A book of astonishment in words and photography, available to order here:

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A Book and a Shady Nook

O for a book and a shady nook,
Either indoors or out;
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cries all about;
Where I may read all at my ease,
Both of the new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look
Is better to me than gold.

~John Wilson (early 19th century Scottish author)

Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle
Yale Divinity School Library
Village Books, Lynden, WA

…for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good––that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
     Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street,
     Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet.

~Garrison Keillor 

Trinity College Long Room, Dublin

You know who you are.

You are the person who stockpiles stacks of books
on the bedside table and next to your favorite chair.

The person who sacrifices sleep to read
just one more page.

The person who reads the cereal box when
nothing else is available near the breakfast table.

The girl who falls into an uncovered manhole
walking down a busy street while reading.

The objects of your affection may be
as precious as the Book of Kells
.

or as sappy as an Archie and Jughead
comic book.

It’s the words, the words,
that keep zipping by, telegraphing

an urgent message: What’s next?
What’s next?

~Lois Edstrom “Bookworm” from Almanac of Quiet Days

Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University

Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. Even as a retired physician, I still spend an hour a day reading medical articles but now have the opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.

As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet my favorite authors in real life and to interact with them on line. They are friends on the page as well as in my life.

I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. There is no greater privilege than to share words with one another.

No matter where I find my books – in an independent bookstore, in a little free library standing along the roadside, or inside the world’s treasured libraries filled with books of antiquity – I’ll seek out the sanctuary of a shady nook, either inside or out, where I can open the pages to meet up once again with my friends.

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To Be Conscious of Our Treasures

There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to — the small, good things that came in abundance.
~Mary Karr from The Art of Memoir


We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
~Thornton Wilder, quotes from “Our Town”

The words from “Our Town” written over 80 years ago still ring true:
at that time our country was crushed under the Great Depression, and
now out country is staggering under a Great Depression of the spirit~
despite more connected electronically,
we are, due to politics and pandemic,
more isolated from family, friends, faith.

Thought more economically secure,
we are emotionally bankrupt.

May we always be conscious of
our many treasures and abundance,
while taking care of others in need.

God, in His everlasting recognition
of our perpetual need of Him,
cares for us, even while
we turn our faces away from Him.

I search the soil of this life, this farm, this faith
to find what yearns
to grow, to bloom, to fruit, in order
to be harvested to share with others.

My deep gratitude goes
to you who visit here
and to those who let me know
the small and the good I share with you
makes a difference in your day

I’m right alongside you in joint Thanksgiving
to our Creator and Preserver.

Many blessings today and always,
Emily

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A book of thanksgiving for beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

A Brief Moment of Exchange

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
~Danusha Laméris “Small Kindnesses”

There is true holiness in moments of kindness: I notice it now more than ever. I am given infinite daily opportunities to show kindness to others and when I’m preoccupied, too inside my own head, or feeling too injured myself, I usually walk by without even trying.

Yet when kindness is shown to me, I don’t forget it – it permeates me like a homespun apple pie fragrance that lingers around me, comforting and welcoming me home when I feel alone and a stranger in the world.

I remember all the kindnesses shown to me over the years and always carry them with me. When I have an opportunity in a brief encounter to show kindness, I want to help make someone else feel noticed and special. I want them feel like they belong, right in that moment.

This daily sharing of words and photos is one way I try to give back what I have been gifted over the years. During the two or three minutes of someone looking at what I offer here daily, I want you to know:

you belong here
I am forever grateful for you
your words enrich me with your gift of kindness.

Thank you for being here.

(today I am sharing all the different stages of one special hydrangea bush on our farm)

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A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Clutching Stardust

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I hold on the page is intangible yet very real.

I will keep reaching for the rainbow, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever, for my someday greatgrandchildren, or whoever might have the patience to read.

After all, in the beginning was the Word, and there is no better place to start.

More beauty in words and photography is found in this book available here:

Lost Moments

When I was a child, I had a powerful sense that I wanted to commemorate things. I even remember thinking at the time that it was a strange word for a twelve-year old to use.

… it is the idea that every life is sacred and that life is composed of details, of lost moments, of things that nobody cares about, including the people who are wounded or overjoyed by those moments. I don’t think people allow themselves to value their lives enough. They ignore and discard these fragments.

I would like my writing to be precise enough, detailed enough so that the attention I bring to bear on something unlocks a door to the reader’s life. In that way, by honoring one’s own life, it’s possible to extend empathy and compassion to others.
~Patricia Hampl – Alaska Quarterly Review, Fall and Winter 1995 (interview)

photo by Ben Gibson

I have been writing here nearly daily for over twelve years:

I have come to know so many of you who I will never meet face to face
but who share with me:
your love of beautiful words and pictures,
your love of the land we all steward,
your love of good stories and poetry,
your love of your animal companions,
your love of hanging on to lost moments,
and most of all —
your love of our resurrected Lord.

What do I seek to commemorate in my words and photos as I prepare this daily?

I know your light and love illuminates as it finds its way
through the darkest and thorniest corners of my life:
how precious is a kind word, a silent tear, a crooked smile, a whispered prayer.

What do I want you to experience having visited here?

I want you to remember
there is warmth in these words
and colors in these photos
that don’t come close to what it is like for real,
that lost moments will be found and cherished.

I want you to know that each morning,
I send out this love to thousands I’ll never meet but feel I know,
as you are nevertheless my Barnstorming brothers and sisters.

Carry me with you and pass the light forward.
Keep lost moments in your pocket to pull out when needed.
Open this door to others and welcome them in.
You never know where it could take them.

A book of beauty in words and photos you can share with others, available to order here:

To Gather Paradise

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

~Emily Dickinson

The possibilities contained within a Dickinson poem are doors and windows standing wide open for interpretation and comprehension. When I visit Emily’s dwelling full of mysterious capitalizations, inscrutable dashes and sideways rhymes, I am blind, get easily lost, stumbling over this and that, and end up wondering where she is leading me and how far I’m willing to go.



Yet she tells me
– This –
to get my attention, hold it fast, to look up and out, beyond, and into forever.

-This-
is what I must do when I read her carefully chosen words and dashes
-This-
is what I ask of a reader who opens my email or comes to my daily post
-This-
is us dwelling in possibility for a moment or an eternity,
all eyes and windows and doors wide open to grasp a glimpse of Paradise.

-This-
is our hands spread, ready
to gather, to hold, to embrace, to pray, to fold
to prepare us for Whatever Comes Next…

photo by Sara Larsen

If you enjoy these Barnstorming posts, consider ordering this Barnstorming book – available here:

Wired With Alertness

Edmund Darch Lewis – Susquehanna
Agnes Wallace by Robert Sivell

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.


Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,


a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,


rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.


But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,


when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend


under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana


sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.


That is something I am unlikely

ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.


Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,


even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame. 
~Billy Collins Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

A Hare in the Forest by Hans Hoffman (Getty Museum)
Susquehanna by Jasper Francis Cropsey
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m content to simply imagine.

I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.

I’m grateful there are those who are eagerly wired with alertness for the next experience: adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can sit back and admire their courage and applaud their explorations and achievement.

My mind’s eye and imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others. I find I’m content to explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what I find right here under my nose.

When the light is right, and I’m open enough to it, what I see is ready to spring right out of the frame.

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

….and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

You become a self that fills the four corners of
night.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

More of my images along with Lois Edstrom’s ekphrastic poetry can be found in this book, available for order here: